120°F in the Shade—and By the Water—As Australia’s Record-Melting Summer Intensifies

January 25, 2019, 12:31 AM EST

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Above: Fans cooled off fans in the hot conditions during day 11 of the Australian Open at Melbourne Park on Thursday, January 24, 2019, in Melbourne, Australia. The retractable roof above Rod Laver Arena was closed midway through a set on Thursday to shield spectators and participants from the day’s intense heat. Formerly based only on air temperature and wet-bulb temperature, the Open’s extreme heat policy was recently modified to incorporate air temperature, radiant heat, humidity, and wind speed. Image credit: Photo by Matt King/Getty Images.

All-time heat records are dissolving over large parts of Australia in what could end up as the nation’s hottest summer on record. An especially fierce heat spike swept across the nation’s south and east late this week, pushing wildfire risk to extreme levels.

At least 28 locations hit all-time highs on Thursday. In Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, the official West Terrace station rocketed to 46.6°C (115.9°F)—the highest temperature ever recorded at the designated reporting sites for any of Australia’s state or territorial capitals. About 200 miles away, the city of Port Augusta hit its all-time high on Thursday with a blistering 49.5°C (121.1°F). That’s unnervingly close to the nation’s all-time high of 50.7°C (123.3°F), notched at Oodnadatta, South Australia, on January 2, 1960.

The Port Augusta reading is exceptional in another way: it’s the highest temperature ever recorded at a coastal location in the Southern Hemisphere, according to independent weather researcher Maximiliano Herrera. This includes oceans, seas, gulfs, and lakes, Herrera said. Port August sits near the head of Spencer Gulf, north of Adelaide.

Just a day earlier, on Wednesday, the Red Rocks Point station—which faces Antarctica from the Nullarbor coast of Western Australia—hit 49.1°C (120.4°C). According to Blair Trewin (AU Bureau of Meteorology), the Red Rocks Point station is located only 70 meters (230 feet) from the water. “This is the highest temperature recorded anywhere in the world at such a close distance from an open ocean,” Herrera said. He noted that the sea surface temperature at the time was 22-23°C (72-73°F), quite chilly when compared to the sizzling atmosphere.

The town of Marble Bar in Western Australia is consistently among the nation’s hottest
Figure 1. The town of Marble Bar in Western Australia is consistently among the nation’s hottest. During December and January, temperatures in excess of 45°C (113°F) are not uncommon, and the average maximum temperature exceeds normal human body temperature for six months each year. Image credit: Photo by Rolf Schulten/ullstein bild via Getty Images.

The furnace blast of hot air was being pushed eastward across southern Australia by a strong upper-level trough in the Southern Ocean and a surface front pulling hot air toward coastal regions from the torrid Outback. On Friday, the heat was predicted to spike in Victoria, where Melbourne—the state capital and the nation’s second largest city—was expecting a high of 44°C (111.2°F). The city hit 35°C (95°F) at 7:36 am Friday, which appears to be the earliest hour in the day such heat has ever been observed in Melbourne, according to Trewin.

Melbourne’s average high in January is only 26°C (79°F), but most days are cooler than that, chilled by the proximity of the Southern Ocean, while a smaller number of days dominated by offshore flow are much warmer. The city’s all-time high of 46.4°C (115.5°F) is probably safe at least through Friday.

Another capital city—Hobart, Tasmania—is predicted to hit 37°C (98.6°F) on Friday. Hobart’s all-time high is 41.8°C (107.2°F).

Extreme heat engulfed much of Australia earlier this month. As reported by weather.com, the four days from January 12 to 15 were among the ten hottest days on record for the nation as a whole. All-time highs during that period included Tarcoola in South Australia, which hit 49°C (120.2°F) on January 15, its highest temperature in 116 years of recordkeeping. Even that high was broken with 49.1°C (120.4°F) on Thursday, January 24.

Noona recorded a daily minimum temperature of 35.9C (96.6°F) on January 18. According to Herrera, this is the highest minimum temperature ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere, and the highest recorded anywhere on Earth during any January.

Among other all-time highs in recent weeks:

  • Cairns hit 43.6°C (110.5°F), on 26 November, beating 43.2°C (109.8°F) from 1923.
  • Alice Springs hit 45.6°C (114.1°F), on December 29, beating 45.2°C (113.4°F) from January 3, 1960.

This summer's brutal heat is having major impacts on thousands of feral horses, donkeys, and cattle, among other creatures, as reported by weather.com's Ron Brackett.

Fires burning dangerously close can be seen from the Central Highlands Lodge from on January 22, 2019 in Miena, Australia
Figure 2. Fires burning dangerously close can be seen from the Central Highlands Lodge from on January 22, 2019 in Miena, Australia. Around 40 residents from the small town of Miena in Tasmania's Central Plateau were evacuated. Image credit: Photo by Heath Holden/Getty Images.

Victorians, Tasmanians on edge as fire threat hits extreme levels

Fire danger on Friday was running at severe to extreme levels across much of Victoria, prompting a fire weather warning for several districts and a statewide fire ban. The fire risk is also very high to extreme in Tasmania, where at least 29 fires were reportedly out of control late Thursday. Friday marks the start of the Australia Day holiday weekend, which commemorates the nation’s founding.

Several of Australia’s most catastrophic wildfires on record have occurred in conjunction with extremely hot days. Many all-time heat records were set in January 1939. On the 13th of that month, Victoria was ravaged by the Black Friday bushfires, which destroyed some 650 buildings, killed 71 people, and burned roughly 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres). Similarly, the Black Saturday bushfires of February 7, 2009, which consumed more than 3500 structures and killed 171 people, erupted on the same day that Melbourne set its all-time high mentioned above.

Short-term relief, longer-term grief

Some relief will be sweeping across southeast Australia this weekend as a front brings what Aussies refer to as a “cool change.” (Australia’s soft-rock Little River Band used the phrase in 1979 as the title of one of its international hits.) The weekend cooldown will only be enough to push southeast Australia into “low-intensity heatwave conditions,” though, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.

The bureau’s latest seasonal outlook, issued on January 17 and extending from February into April, looks grim: warmer- and drier-than-average conditions are projected for most of Australia.

Even though Australia’s climate has gotten measurably hotter over the last century, and hot days are projected to become more frequent and intense this century, climate change remains a highly controversial topic. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was booted from office last August in the wake of Turnbull’s attempts to legislate emission reduction targets. “Depending on whose count, this is the third or seventh time that an Australian prime minister has been brought down by climate issues,” reported the Washington Post’s Joshua Busby.

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

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Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at weather.com, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”


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